So here we find ourselves again, bound to the molten now-distended sea of 2016, our wake dogged by lands of fable we left behind, all the tales that no longer work. But they don't give up in our minds. When we look into the mirror pastwards, we seem to see cliffs and panoplies of loved story carking at us wordfully in our wake Remember Me! Remember Me! It's hard not to. Through these latterday eyes that still work, it seems we can remember a load-bearing world of story back then, tale after tale holding together on dry land: stories holding themselves together within the frame or genre—if genres could then be defined as iterations of mutual trust—that they told themselves out of. Here and now, still, maturely gazing into the finneganless wake, it is possible to feel a yawning amnesia about a time we could believe in story: an inability to reinhabit the circumstances of telling back then, which is much the same thing. As any churchman should tell you, belief is a frame of belief.
Certainly there are ghosts. Old stories chase us like doppelgangers longing to be told again, as though they could come home again, as though there were a home they could come to. A couple of them will be discussed swiftly below, though with due reverence, in a moment. Asking to be remembered is perhaps inevitable in a world—maybe better say "on a planet"—that writhes like poison: but it can read as death throes: for a story to be remembered beyond the fact that it was written to beg for remembrance, more than loyalty to the good old days is required, more than fealty to megatext.
A beneficial consequence of the use of an umbrella term like "fantastika"—within whose loose framework (as I understand it) the non-mimetic genres since 1800 nest easily and cohabit without stricture—is to shift one's instinctive critical focus from hypostasized genres (none of which of course actually existed in any pure form) to particular instances of the use of certain generic elements in certain works. It has been very useful, over the past century of critical attempts to understand the fantastic as a whole, to establish and attempt to regulate any number of genres and subgenres, from Gothic fiction to terror to horror to scientific romance to SF to fantasy to dark fantasy to steampunk to weird and on and on. But maybe that time has passed. Over and above the turf wars that have diced fantastika for all these decades, we are I think beginning to recognize that the world we now live in is simply not addressable with the tools of the old armamentarium. A twenty-first century SF story, for instance, in the tide-race of today, is most usefully understood as a story containing elements of SF, in (I would suggest) a kind of gap dance.
Increasingly, therefore, as we plough deeper into the current century, the deep terroir of fantastika—the heart of the enterprise of telling tales that stick illuminatingly if temporarily to the writhing of the world, before it throws them off—is located not in instantiations of the previous or in something not yet told, but in the leap between the two. Our moments of true insight are epiphanies of passage. (We will look at Nina Allan's The Race, extracted like attar from the dead snake of the prior, in a moment.) A story that instantiates a formula is ontologically belated: it is, as I suggested a moment ago, a doppelganger: a parody face from ago. But we need to be courteous to the old faces worn here. Especially do we need to be cautious about implying that Nina Allan is from Ago: she comes last below, but she is really first.
The saddest of the books being looked at here is certainly Ariel S. Winter's Barren Cove, not least because its purity of diction, and its author's smooth-muscled control of how to make dialogue flow, almost persuade us that all this polish may actually next us into peril: or why couch it as SF at all? In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I have written quite a few author entries—well over 100 so far—where I've used the link term "Mainstream Writers of SF" (hence MWSFs) to point to authors who tend to extract SF topoi from their narrative context within the SF Megatext in order to illustrate serious themes: gender, entropy, identity, tyranny, epistemology. Protagonists in this kind of back-to-front telling pre-understand their representative roles. Discussions are frequent. Outside the cenacle or keep or prison or boardinghouse where tales of this sort often roost, it is often possible to sense a dystopian surround, often on lines first articulated by writers from Between the Wars at the risk of finding their stories come true. Indeed, as writers who know what they are going to talk about (because they've read it before) tend to self-pity the puppet Jobs they deck out with sententiae, characters in tales by MWSFs do tend to get arrested After the Speech. It may seem unkind to incorporate Winter into this model, but sadly, despite the supple waste-not-a-word grace of his telling, the shoe does fit.
It is somewhere in the near future, though Winter jangles the nerves with hard drives and rebooting downtime schticks and USB ports, either in order to suggest that the world he's created is simply an a priori artifact to have serious discussions in, or because he doesn't know how many years he's out of date in terms of real world computer science. Ignorance may explain his assuming that the problem of artificial consciousness has been solved, even though his mechanically unsophisticated self-aware robots run on batteries and have no cloud to regroup into. The tale is told in the first person by a robot guy who has traveled to Barren Cove, an isolated cabin on the coast, in the hope that the fresh sea air may help him recover from anomie caused, it seems, by the gradual disappearance of Homo sapiens from the world, leaving their creations to fend for themselves. Which patently they cannot. The protagonist discovers a large house at the top of the sea-cliff, in which a kind of "family" of robots trap themselves in the kind of dysfunctional family romance that only meat puppets (one would have thought) are prone to. The stench of odourless sex is everywhere, and other conniptions out of Dallas. Seemingly in obedience to archaic programming, the protagonist falls in love with a female robot but she is a Weimar-and-Water flirt and mocks him.
The landscape is almost deserted, entropy is increasing, the protagonist can hardly remember what he left behind in the great (but unnamed) city he left (unidentified cities are common in books written by MWSFs) in order to cure himself. Though some of them have taken the surname Asimov, the robots of Barren Cove are not governed by anything resembling the Three Laws, and pretty well murder any still-surviving human they encounter. The protagonist's desperation is never pitched high:
How could I ask to be shut down? What would tomorrow be without me? I might be old, but my interest in humans didn't seem to extend to a desire to share their fate. Shouldn't I have known that before I even left the city?
But the real problem is not that this is pretty tepid, even for an obsolescent battery-charged box with affect problems, but that it comes not at the beginning of the tale but at its very end. Which is to say that the complacently belated premise of Barren Cove is what ends it.
There is no gainsaying the belatedness of Tom Gauld's Mooncop, a short graphic novel he both wrote and drew; but then Mooncop is not about the significance of belatedness; it is the thing itself. There is no moaning at the bar. The last police officer on the Moon encounters a young woman who has been seconded there (clearly through administrative error) to upgrade the local autonomic Lunar Donuts outlet into a Lunar Donuts Minicafe, which she is supposed to run. But as the Moon has by now been effectually evacuated, due to the impossibility of establishing a viable cost-effective colony there, the police officer is her only customer. Soon it is clear that, after the last shuttle has taken off, only the two of them remain, as the officer's computer confirms when asked. They go for a ride in his moon buggy. They sit together, gazing at the giant home planet in the sky. What they care is what they see.
The story is marginally underpowered, one supposes: but reads more as though Gauld intended a poem not a lesson, something meant to be grasped in a breath. Certainly nothing specifically teachable is iterated, though the visuals are movingly "simple" (that is, not simple at all), and almost supernaturally dense, in the way Hugh Lofting's drawings were (page 9 et al.), and Edward Gorey's (page 31 et al.): here, without a word spoken over the corpse of any dead genre, the effect is of threnody. It all happened a long long time ago, but there is no plea to be remembered. What they saw is what we get. It is a far deeper goodbye than Barren Cove's.
So here is the second iteration of Nina Allan's 1914 novel The Race. The first iteration has been fully reviewed in these pages, but for those readers who may have wanted an easier-to-parse resolution as to the interacting reality levels of the four parts of the original version, the five part version now released may bring some relief. One hopes few of her first readers gave a toss, though: as it seems to be absolutely central to both versions (my memory of 2014 is hazy though) that scoring their various sections on some sort of Ontological Density grid was precisely not the point of the enterprise. Certainly in its 2016 garb, The Race seems to work as an almost perfectly ideal representation of a central characteristic of fantastika: that any initial read of any such story should be literal: that what you read is what you get. It is a principle I think Chip Delany articulated 45 years ago, and one I've run with ever since. It subtends my distrust of soi disant fanatastika by MWSFs, where metaphorical intent so often precedes the literal, so that hard-earned and otherwise constantly mutant topoi are tasered into standing in for something else. The race of identities in Allan's quite wonderful novel has no winners.
For those who prefer a weighted text, however, "Brock Island," the new Part Five, is both the most specifically SF-immersed section of the whole—set well into the future, and confirming both the othernesss of the great whales and the existence of genuine aliens in space—and its most "mundane," as it is specifically described as a story written by Christy Peller, the loosely implied author of the entire book in both 2014 and 2016, and published in 2004, which is I think the only date actually given anywhere in either version. So the choice is stark. The reader can understand the entirety of The Race as comprising Christy's own life in a recognizably this-worldy south of England, plus two sequences which have clearly been projected onto paper by Christy for professional reasons (she becomes a professional author) and to make sense of her own life. Or that reader can take each section as equally real-while-read, with the Ontology Density stakes very much understood in terms of afterthought.
I think the mundane reading—two sections being real, three (in 2016) being fictional projections—may have been chosen by the Guardian reviewer who is quoted as saying "Allan's considerable strengths lie in the literary mainstream," and who in the body of his review deprecates the overtly fantastic sections; in the end, this reading—which leaves us with stories evacuated of inherent grasp because they're just stories told, or they're stories logy with desperation because they are nothing but "real"—seems entirely to lack interest. An understanding of The Race in terms of fantastika may give readers, on the other hand, some chance of getting close to what seems a central pursuit of this intricately constructed text: which (vulgarly) might be defined as a chase after telling, a sequence of epiphanic leaps (see above) that toll the telling like gongs: a wrestling with the ontological density of Story itself, rather than what it claims to depose: a confronting of the Uncanny Valley aspect of any told world: a superflux of embedded thisness markers throughout fixing down all the worlds here created (I cannot remember a novel with more names in it: each one of them a fixative), only to fool us with another leap.
"Brock Island" carries the overall narrative twenty years onward. Maree—who we remember from previous reviews and previous versions of the book is in a sense Christy's double, and ultimately the main bearer of those aspects of The Race dealing with the quasi-telepathic relationship between those like her and smartdogs—returns to Brock Island to attend the funeral of her older friend Dodie. Her empath powers have been focused on deciphering alien binary codes into language, with small but genuine success. By the end of "Brock Island" she discovers that she has broken through. We do not meet the painter whose name is Laura Christy. But Maree realizes that
In the portraits Christy had painted, it was almost as if the subject had become the image, as if the oils and pigments that covered the canvas had become imprinted with the painter's DNA. (p. 440)
Laura believes she has an identical twin, and when she discovers that in this world she has none, she posits the existence of an alternate world where the other Christy lives her own multiply named life. Laura's paintings are Uncanny Valley realizations of worlds identical to any of the worlds we care to inhabit in this book that grasps us to live them.
One of Laura's paintings contains the binary code Maree has deciphered, and for an instant the race is won. Believe what you will for as long as it lasts. Or do what any true storyteller asks: just believe. Believe until the world ends.